Of Courage, Humanae Vitae, and the Martyrdom of Speaking Up
“People who would face torture in the arena rather than deny him, cannot bring themselves to affirm him at the dinner table...”
“Above all the Gospel must be proclaimed by witness.”
~ Pope St. Paul VI
“Our silence…eats away at the vitality of our belief.”
~ Frank Sheed
When I got to St. Anthony’s for Mass last Saturday, I noticed the bulletins in the rack had the same cover as the ones at my own parish. “Canonization of Saint Paul VI & Saint Óscar Romero,” they read across the top, “October 14, 2018.” Beneath was a portrait of the two men side by side: Paul with his white papal skullcap (or zucchetto), the bespectacled Archbishop with his episcopal reddish one.
I snagged a bulletin to take in with me. Already, even just a week hence, I’d forgotten about the canonization, and I wanted the saints’ pictures beside me on the pew as I prayed. They’d both long been heroes of mine, and perhaps their recent canonization slipped my mind because, like many Catholics, I’d always thought of them as saints – and the color of their zucchettos hint at why: Romero died a martyr for courageously standing up to injustice, while the Pope suffered a bloodless martyrdom of global opposition, rejection and humiliation.
But first, Romero. He was a quiet, reserved prelate running a poor, rural Salvadoran diocese when he was unexpectedly appointed Archbishop of the capital in 1977. At the time, political unrest was roiling the country’s downtrodden populace, and the fascistic government was employing every means – including brutal intimidation and violence – to keep a tight lid on things. Consequently, when San Salvador’s archbishopric became vacant, the country’s political elite welcomed Romero’s candidacy because they thought he’d be acquiescent to their authoritarian rule.
To the government’s (and the people’s) surprise, Romero turned out to be anything but. Once familiarized with the repressive conditions holding sway throughout his country, and the associated dire circumstances of the impoverished majority, Romero spoke up – decisively. He pushed back against the ruling class, advocated non-violent opposition to injustice, and broadcast via radio his calls for social redress and political change. The people were heartened and encouraged; the ruling party, enraged. In 1980, that rage turned murderous when gunmen loyal to the government killed Romero as he said Mass in a San Salvador hospital chapel.
It’s a horrific story, but one that captures the imagination of converts like me – the kind of tenacious commitment and courageous self-oblation I’d encountered in the life of Thomas More, my confirmation saint. I had no illusions that I’d ever face a life and death challenge as More (and Romero) had, but I wanted to think I’d be able – with God’s grace – to rise to the occasion if I did. “Martyrdom is the supreme witness given to the truth of the faith,” reads the Catechism. “The martyr bears witness to Christ who died and rose, to whom he is united by charity” (CCC 2473). As a wannabe Catholic, the life stories of More and countless other saints inspired me, and I wanted to be a saint, too. Why not aspire to the kind of saint who’d die for love of Christ?
Such were my thoughts as Mass began last Saturday – martyrdom and fortitude, staying true to Christ no matter the cost, even the ultimate cost – and I settled in for the readings. Then, as we stood for the Gospel, my thoughts shifted to Pope St. Paul VI – my other hero on the bulletin cover. “Everyone who acknowledges me before others the Son of Man will acknowledge before the angels of God,” I heard Jesus tell his disciples – tell us, tell me. “But whoever denies me before others will be denied before the angels of God.”
It’s a Gospel passage that applies to blood red martyrs like Romero, for sure, but it applies equally to bloodless, white martyrs like Paul VI. After the Gospel – and as if he’d read my thoughts – the celebrant at St. Anthony’s zeroed in on precisely that point in his homily. “Today, we need to speak up about our beliefs,” he said. “It’s not enough to only believe. We must make our beliefs known – even when it is difficult.”
That’s what Paul VI did, and it cost him. Yes, he’d been a holy priest and bishop; yes, he took up the mantle of St. Peter during Vatican II, carrying on from his saintly predecessor, Pope St. John XXIII, to lead the Church toward the aggiornamento and renewal Pope John had envisioned. But what Pope Paul is especially remembered for – what he is even reviled for – is his 1968 encyclical, Humanae Vitae, which strongly reaffirmed the Church’s teaching on the dual meaning of marital love, procreative and unitive.
Humanae Vitae wasn’t a groundbreaking document by a long shot – it was squarely in line with what the Church and other popes have always taught – but its frank assertion of traditional marital chastity arrived smack dab in the middle of the sexual revolution. What’s more, Pope Paul chose to reaffirm Catholic prohibitions against contraception despite a recommendation to the contrary from a commission of married couples and experts the pontiff himself appointed.
In fact, the pope went so far as to spell out his veto in the encyclical’s opening paragraphs: “The conclusions arrived at by the commission could not be considered by Us as definitive and absolutely certain,” he wrote. “This was all the more necessary because…certain approaches and criteria for a solution to this question had emerged which were at variance with the moral doctrine on marriage constantly taught by the magisterium of the Church.” (HV 6).
It was a polite papal “thanks, but no thanks,” and he went on to carefully delineate for the modern era this fundamental truth: Sex, as designed by God, is oriented to intimate mutuality and fecundity. Both, always both. To suppress one in favor of the other is to destroy something essential to the marital act. It flies in the face of what God intends for us as human persons, lovers and parents.
That’s not what the world wanted to hear. Nor was it what so many Catholics wanted – or expected – to hear. “When Humanae Vitae first appeared it caused a furor,” Richard McCormick commented on the document’s 25th anniversary. “My yellow and crumbling copy of the National Catholic Reporter for Aug. 7, 1968, carries the headline: ‘Paul Issues Contraceptive Ban: Debate Flares on His Authority.’” That debate turned into outright dissent, as theologians and even bishops’ conferences openly rejected the encyclical and urged married Catholics to make up their minds for themselves.
And make up their own minds they did – and still do. By some measures, close to 90 percent of Catholics report having no problem with birth control, and many (if not most) likely make use of it. Moreover, Pope Paul himself endured strident rebuke following the release of Humanae Vitae, both from the general public and members of his own flock. “I think it is very sad for the image of the Church throughout the world,” stated one prominent English Jesuit for example. “In many ways Pope Paul has tried to bring the Church up to date, but he has set us back several centuries with this.”
As holy as the future saint evidently was, Paul still took the backlash hard. “Now I understand St. Peter,” the pontiff later said. “He came to Rome twice, the second time to be crucified.”
Yet – and it’s a significant yet – he never backed down. “Don’t be afraid!” he told an ally regarding the encyclical. “In 20 years’ time, they will call me a prophet.” Certainly, 50 years out, many do just that, and Pope Francis clearly referenced the saintly pontiff’s mettle in his canonization homily: “Even in the midst of tiredness and misunderstanding, Paul VI bore witness in a passionate way to the beauty and the joy of following Christ totally.”
Following Christ totally – it’s what saints do, and I don’t think it’s a coincidence that saint-to-be Pope Paul was able to directly pass along some advice along those lines to saint-to-be Óscar Romero. In June 1978, Romero traveled to Rome to consult with Paul about El Salvador’s explosive situation. “I do know that not everyone thinks like you, it is difficult in the circumstances in your country to have that unanimity of thought,” Romero recorded the pope telling him, “however, proceed with courage, with patience, with strength, with hope.”
The Holy Father was speaking from experience. He knew something about speaking up when it was inconvenient; he knew something about the cost of witness; he knew something about the courage, patience, strength, and hope that must accompany costly witness, whatever its form.
And us? We’re called to martyrdom – witness – as well. I still don’t think many of us will suffer death squads or chopping blocks, but that doesn’t let us off the hook. “People who would face torture in the arena rather than deny him, cannot bring themselves to affirm him at the dinner table against the amused smile, the raised eyebrow, of the unbeliever,” writes Frank Sheed. These days, we seem to fear fellow Catholics even more, especially when it comes to Church teaching on birth control and sex, and we have to “ask ourselves what our own silence means. It may be a quite correct admission of our incompetence. It may be evasion, or in plain words, cowardice.”
If it’s the latter, we now have two more saints to intercede for us. They’re standing by.